The Chinese were right after all. When the Asian Games began in Tehran three weeks ago, they frankly admitted that they did not have too much talent on their team. "We have come to learn," said Mao's men. Few onlookers believed them, so when the Games ended last Sunday the Chinese were in good position to say: we told you so. Oh, they won a mound of medals—106 to be exact, including 33 golds. But by Olympic standards the medallions they trunked home were no more meaningful than tourist trinkets, just so many bright baubles won by the likes of 10.6 100-meter sprinters whose times would not have qualified them to compete at Munich in 1972. At the last Olympics, if you hadn't run 10.3 or better, they didn't even let you in, except as the token entrant each country is allowed if it has no athlete who meets the qualifying standards.
In politics, a sport in which the People's Republic has the kind of world-class experience and world-wise technique that its athletes sorely lack, the Chinese mixed muscle with finesse and appeared to have made solid strides toward the big prize they seek—supplanting Taiwan as the representative of China in the 1976 Olympics. During the opening week of the Asian Games, Chinese officials held several long discussions with Lord Killanin, the new boss of the International Olympic Committee. He came away saying that he was sympathetic to the Chinese cause, just as long as they did not try any political pressure tactics. After years of Avery Brundage, the sympathy of His Lordship must have been as welcome to the Chinese as a warm spring after a long dark winter.
Ho Chen-liang is a high-ranking member of the Standing Committee of the All-China Sports Federation. One afternoon last week in Tehran he served a piping hot green tea called Dragon's Well and sugared walnuts and spoke of China's dealings with Brundage, the former IOC president. "We know of this chap," he said. "It was he who was maneuvering the question of two Chinas in the IOC. He should bear the responsibility for confusion and disorder in the Chinese sports picture. His brain is obsolete. He was far behind developments. It is 20 years since we left international competition, and great changes have taken place during this period, especially in 1971 when the U.N. restored China to her rightful place and expelled the Chiang Kai-shek clique. Quite a few justice-minded international sports federations have done the same. More and more people have come to see this trend, but never Brundage. We were really dismayed at his ignorance."
In another of their political moves, the Chinese decided that they would not talk to the Israelis. Putting aside their slogan of friendship first, competition second, the Chinese led a boycott against Israel in all combative sports—fencing, soccer, basketball and tennis. Tennis? With the logic of the East, the Chinese decided that swimming or running against an Israeli in the next lane was not as warlike as volleying a tennis ball across a net.
"What is the difference between tennis and track?" Ho was asked.
"I'll answer that tomorrow," he said. Tomorrow never came, at least as far as that question was concerned.
China said the boycott against Israeli athletes was only a gesture of friendship toward Iraq, but by the beginning of the final week of the Games the Chinese were refusing to shake hands with the Israelis they met on the victory stand.
"Friendship!" snorted Josef Inbar, president of the Olympic Committee of Israel and an executive member of the Asian Games Federation. "When China says friendship it doesn't mean what we mean. They are seeking membership in the track, swimming, soccer and gymnastics federations. Since they also demand the expulsion of Taiwan, they will try to do this through the support of the Asian and Arab countries. By forming an Afro-Asian bloc they will be able to get what they want. They are against us only because they want the Arabs on their side. If there were a lot of Israeli nations and only one Arab state, they'd be boycotting the Arabs."
One group of Arab supporters the Chinese did not want to offend was the host Iranians, who had led the fight to have Taiwan expelled from the Asian Games. China has been assured that Iran will carry the same cause to the IOC.
Taiwan was out of the Asian Games and China was in after Iran called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the AGF in 1973 and asked for a vote on the issue. At that meeting Israel, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan and Japan each had one vote and Iran, as the host country for the next Games, had three. Because of political instability at home, the representative from Indonesia was absent and his vote was counted as an automatic No against the expulsion of Taiwan. Israel. Malaysia and Thailand also voted No. Pakistan and Japan voted Yes. That made it 4-2 for Taiwan. Then Iran voted three No's and made the total 5-4 for China. It was that simple.
"Nothing has been done that was underhanded," said Abul Hassan, the member of the AGF executive committee from Pakistan. "Years ago Taiwan came in, found a place vacant and said, "I'm the descendant of China." They came into the Asian Games as China. Now China has come in and said, "We want our place." It is not at the expense of Taiwan that the People's Republic takes its place. With 800 million people, you have to make a choice."
To get into the Olympics, China must next get the approval of the individual federations, and so far only the weight lifters have voted to oust Taiwan to make room for the mainland. That was by a unanimous vote of the board members—Thailand, Russia, Iran, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Finland, Austria, Spain and England—on May 4. Four other federations—basketball, table tennis, volleyball and badminton—were able to accept the People's Republic as a member because Taiwan was not in their groups.
At the Asian Games, the Chinese competed in 14 of the 16 sports. They skipped boxing, which they say is indecent, and they did not participate in field hockey because they have never played it. That leaves nine federations, including the big four of soccer, swimming, track and field, and gymnastics to haggle over the Chinese issue. The going will be sticky. The problem is not bringing China in, but throwing Taiwan out. Peking will not have it any other way. At the soccer meetings in Frankfurt during June's World Cup, China's application for membership was accepted by a simple majority, but the federation requires a three-fourths vote for the expulsion of a member. That was not attained and, as a result, the People's Republic still is not a member of the soccer federation.
There also is the possibility that all of this might turn out to be moot. The Chinese may go home, check their times against world competition, decide to skip Montreal and let the Taiwanese get shellacked instead.
As the Asian Games concluded it was glaringly apparent that while the Chinese may have everyone far outdistanced in quantity, they come up very short in quality—primarily because they lack experience in international competition. Surely they are the best in table tennis and badminton, but neither is an Olympic sport. After diving, shooting and gymnastics, where they showed tremendous potential, the Chinese demonstrated little that seemed likely to make them threats on a worldwide basis. The Asian Games medal count is misleading, since most of the winners there fell far short of Olympic qualifying standards. Some even failed to approach United States schoolboy records.
Yasunori Hamada of Japan won the men's 10,000 meters in 30:49.87. The Olympic qualifying minimum for 1972 was 28:50, and the American high school record is 29:17.6. China's Ma Hsuehchung finished 10th in that race in 34:46.47, almost six minutes slower than the Munich standard.
Thailand's Anat Ratanapol took the 100-meter final to earn the title of Asia's Fastest Human. He won in 10.42, one-tenth of a second slower than the Olympic qualifying time and three-tenths slower than the U.S. schoolboy mark. One of the Chinese sprinters, Feng Chenjen, finished in 10.63; the other, Yu Weili, pulled a hamstring 40 meters from the tape. In two previous heats neither did better than 10.8.
Those were not isolated examples. If the Asian Games had been the qualifying trials for the Olympics, only eight male track-and-field athletes would have met the standards, and just one of those would have been Chinese. He was Ni Chih-chin, a high jumper who finished second to Iran's Teymour Ghiassi (7'3") with a leap of 7'1", three-eighths of an inch over the qualifying standard.
In swimming, the only other sport where such meaningful comparisons are possible, China floundered in every event. In the 400-meter freestyle relay, the only race in which the Chinese women placed, their time was 4:21.77. At Munich the slowest qualifying time was 4:05.95, and the U.S. won in 3:55.19. The Chinese men took nine swimming medals, and not once did they come near the slowest qualifying time for the finals two years ago at the Schwimmhalle. Lo Chao-ying, who finished second in the 100-meter butterfly in 58.44, came closest. At Munich that would have placed him third in the first heat and 18th overall. The poorest qualifying time was 57.28. Mark Spitz won in 54.27.
Still, it would be ill-advised to sell the Chinese short. Five years ago they were given no chance of being in an Olympics, and it now seems possible that they will be on hand in Montreal. There is a lot of unhoned talent in the People's Republic. All China has to do is sharpen it up in tough international competition and the result could be a whole new ball game, or footrace, or swim meet. And considering the way things have been going for the Chinese lately in sporting politics, it might even be dangerous to bet that there won't be any Ping-Pong played at Montreal.